Sadly, it’s not new that Donald Trump vilified a group of people with spurious claims from a terrible source: today, it was false and misleading assertions against Muslims, from a leader of the tiny, extreme nationalist party, Britain First. What has changed is the stunning degree to which Dangerous Speech has become normalized in Trump’s White House, where his attack was vigorously endorsed. In contrast to his campaign or even the early days of his administration, his staff has made no effort to justify or explain his false and damaging statements.
Asked about the false tweets and videos (one claims to show a Muslim migrant beating up a boy with crutches, but Dutch diplomats and journalists have confirmed that both were Dutch citizens, and the assailant was not Muslim), White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded, “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real.” Lies are just as good as truth, in other words, if they convince people and, especially, instill fear. Sanders repeatedly echoed Trump’s dangerous assertion that Muslims (not terrorists, just Muslims in general) are a threat. “The threat is real, the threat needs to be addressed, the threat has to be talked about, and that’s what the president is doing in bringing that up,” she said.
In the past it was commonplace for Trump’s staff to reframe or attempt to soften his comments. Throughout his campaign and presidency, Donald Trump has vilified groups of many types: nationalities, religious groups, even those who share a profession, such as journalists. Announcing his candidacy, for example, he described Mexicans in the United States as people with problems, who bring drugs and crime and are rapists… “and some, I assume, are good people.” Asked about this, Mike Pence tried to focus attention on the ‘good people’ phrase.
Similarly, after Trump’s first executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, he tweeted:
Then-press secretary Sean Spicer quickly tried to reframe Trump’s comment so that it did not seem to demonize Muslims as a group (and to help it pass legal scrutiny, an effort that ultimately failed). “It’s not a Muslim ban. It’s not a travel ban,” Spicer stated. “It’s a vetting system to keep America safe.”
Trump’s staff have often tied themselves into rhetorical knots, trying to clean up his statements, but this is worse. Sanders’ simple confirmation that the point of Donald Trump’s recent retweets was to convey fear of a real “threat” represents a frightening turn. It means not only that the administration is explicitly condoning the President’s use of Twitter to spread hateful and fear-inducing messages, but also that these messages have been normalized to a point that the White House no longer considers them a public relations challenge.
In the government of Britain, where the tweets originated, this is fortunately not the case. The videos that Trump forwarded (titled“Muslim Destroy a Statue of Virgin Mary!,” “Islamist mob pushes teenage boy off roof and beats him to death!” and Muslim migrant beats up Dutch boy on crutches!”) were originally posted by Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of the British ultranationalist party Britain First. British Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman said on Wednesday: “Britain First seeks to divide communities by their use of hateful narratives that peddle lies and stoke tensions. They cause anxiety to law-abiding people. British people overwhelmingly reject the prejudiced rhetoric of the far right which is the antithesis of the values this country represents, decency, tolerance and respect.”
Jeremy Corbyn said about Trump’s forwarding of Fransen’s tweets “They are abhorrent, dangerous and a threat to our society.” And Brendan Cox, whose wife Jo, a British member of parliament was stabbed to death in June 2016 by a man shouting “Britain First!” and “this is for Britain” tweeted “Trump has legitimized the far right in his own country, now he’s trying to do it in ours. Spreading hatred has consequences & the President should be ashamed of himself.”
Fransen and Britain First have far too much influence, but it is limited. They have won no seats in Parliament, have about 1,000 members, and some 20,000 followers on Twitter. By forwarding false and dangerous content from Fransen, Trump vastly amplified the impact it has had and will continue to have.
Trump must apologize and clearly repudiate the Fransen videos and tweets. Even if he does not, his supporters must do so. To repudiate dangerous speech is a civic duty that becomes all the more urgent and important, the more influential the speaker.